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Resurgent Rick Santorum beats Mitt Romney in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado

DENVER — Rick Santorum catapulted back into the primary limelight last night, stunning presumed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in the Colorado caucuses while handily winning in Minnesota and Missouri. Although none of the votes were binding, the trio of losses sows doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to win over conservatives in the nation’s heartland.

Santorum’s close victory in Colorado, considered the prize of the night, came despite aggressive campaigning by Romney in a state where he dominated eventual nominee John McCain in 2008 by more than 40 points.

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For Romney, there was no doubt that the results staggered his momentum after decisive victories in Florida and Nevada, but it’s unclear whether the setback will be sustained or momentary. After Maine completes its caucuses Saturday, the next vote will not be until primaries on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan, where he has been heavily favored.

Yet after Romney banked on his vastly superior organizations in Colorado and Minnesota, his weak showing could persuade more conservatives to flock to Santorum.

Romney spoke directly last night about who carried the day.

‘‘This was a good night for Rick Santorum,’’ Romney told supporters in Denver, shortly after 11:30 p.m. ‘‘But I expect to become your nominee.’’

He then quickly reassumed a front-runner posture, pivoting into how President Obama’s promises, many made in Denver when he accepted the Democratic nomination, have been barren and peppering his speech with a mantra he uses often in stump speeches: “President Obama has failed, and we will succeed.”

The Missouri primary was considered little more than a straw poll, with the actual delegates decided at the state caucuses on March 17. And both caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado were non-binding, with the delegates distributed at state conventions in the weeks to come.

Yet, the decisive wins by Santorum were startling:

-- With 99 percent of precincts reporting in Colorado, he took 40 percent of the vote, with Romney trailing with 35 percent. Newt Gingrich had 13 percent and Texas Representative Ron Paul 12 percent.

-- In Minnesota, with 88 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum led with 45 percent of the vote. Romney, who won in Minnesota in 2008, could do no better than third place, at 17 percent. Paul took second place, with 27 percent.

-- In Missouri, Santorum led Romney 55 percent to 25 percent, with Paul garnering 12 percent, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting.

Missouri was considered particularly important to Santorum, since Gingrich was not able to get on the ballot. That afforded the former Pennsylvania senator an opportunity to present himself as the true conservative in a head-to-head match with Romney.

A jubilant Santorum told supporters in St. Charles, Mo., that his victories would be heard loud across the country. ‘‘They were probably heard loud in Massachusetts,’’ he said.

Although Romney’s campaign had begun early yesterday to downplay the eventual results, the breadth of Santorum’s wins were surprising. The scarcity of reliable polling data had made it difficult to predict the outcomes, particularly in Minnesota and Colorado where turnout was difficult to predict.

Even before yesterday, there were signs of another surge by Santorum, who rocketed from single digits in polls before the caucuses in Iowa to take the first-in-the-nation caucus, after a recount. On Monday, Romney’s campaign criticized Santorum over his support for earmarks when he was in Congress.

That line of attack is expected to intensify.

As the race heads toward next month’s Super Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor will try to reassert his standing atop the field. The only debate of the month, on Feb. 22 in Arizona, now looms larger on the political calendar.

While the Romney campaign could argue that the losses were superficial, his rivals will pounce on his poor performance as a repudiation of his candidacy by the GOP’s conservative wing, particularly in Minnesota, which Romney won four years ago.

Romney expects a strong showing in Michigan, where he was born and where his father , George, served as governor. His campaign hopes to put to rest doubts on whether the Massachusetts governor and former Bain Capital chief can do well in the Rust Belt.

Yet, in Michigan Romney is likely to face questions about his opposition of the government’s bailout of the state’s major economic engine: the auto industry. The bailout has been critical for the sector’s rebound and adding of jobs in the past two years.

Super Tuesday’s role in determining the GOP’s presidential nominee is now outsized. Questions about Romney’s ability to consolidate a sturdy base are sure to dog him in Bible Belt states such as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, which has the largest delegate prize on March 6.

At stake in the 10 states will be 437 delegates — nearly two-fifths of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination. That puts a premium on organization, where Romney has shown himself to be strongest.

‘‘The thing that Romney’s got going for him is that he’s planned for a long campaign. He’s got the money,’’ said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, another Super Tuesday state. ‘‘A tough battle gets him ready for November.’’

Nevertheless, the symbolic value of winning will undoubtedly help build momentum and could aid fund-raising for a campaign like Santorum’s that has operated on a shoe-string budget. More importantly, it could help diminish the aura of invincibility and inevitability that had surrounded the Romney campaign.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.

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